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Castle of Chillon

Château de Chillon

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ABOVE: A Swiss lake steamer approaches the Château de Chillon on Lac Léman near Montreux.

A few jaded cynics might call it a tourist trap, but let's be fair: The Château de Chillon (a.k.a. Castle of Chillon) is a genuine 13th Century castle just outside Montreux, Switzerland, not a plaster replica at Disney World. And Lord Byron's famous poem, The Prisoner of Chillon, was about a real person: François Bonivard, a lay official at St. Victor's priory in Geneva, who spoke out in favor of the Reformation and was shackled to a stone pillar by the Duke of Savoy from 1530 until the Bernese conquest of Vaud in 1536.

The castle appears to rise out of the waters of Lac Léman, where it occupies a rocky islet and is connected to the mainland by a small wooden bridge. The setting could hardly be more dramatic--and it's certainly beautiful, at least to modern visitors who know they won't be assigned to basement quarters for an indefinite stay. (In the old days, its scenic location had a more practical value: The castle faced the road between Bergundy and Italy, thereby protecting the House of Savoy's military and commercial interests.)

A thousand years and counting

No one is sure when the castle was first built. Its site has been occupied since the Bronze Age, but most historians date the oldest parts of the château to about a thousand years ago and credit Pierre II of Savoy with building the present structure in the 13th Century. Its infamous dungeons were literally carved from the rock that supports the castle foundations. The visible portions of the castle include some two dozen buildings around three courtyards, all jammed together in a classically crowded medieval style.

For the last 200 years, the château has been owned by the Canton of Vaud, and it has been a tourist attraction since it was visited (and popularized) by 19th Century poets and authors such as Byron, Shelley, Victor Hugo, Hans Christian Andersen, Flaubert, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens.

Open daily to visitors

The Castle of Chillon is open every day except Christmas and New Year's (Dec. 25 and Jan. 1). Hours vary by season; see the castle's official Web site for huurs and admission fees. (You'll find a link on page 2.)

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